LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") as President TO SECRETARY OF THE NAVY GIDEON WELLES (1802-1878), Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., 22 December 1863.
1 full page, 8vo (8 1/16 x 5 in.), integral blank. [With:] Original envelope addressed by Lincoln to "Hon Secretary of the Navy," marked "Private and Special," and with Lincoln's signature ("A. Lincoln") at top right corner.
TRADING WITH THE ENEMY: LINCOLN DIRECTS THE SUPPRESSION OF INFORMATION DAMAGING TO A CABINET MEMBER
A letter relating to a curious and still mysterious incident of the war, involving blockade runners and their shadowy northern business partners. The letter nicely portrays Lincoln's kind solicitude for the feelings and public image of a cabinet member, in this case, William H. Seward. By late 1863, the Union naval blockade had produced severe shortages of certain goods in the Confederacy. Many unscrupulous northern merchants secretly invested in these cargoes, which were to be run by fast packet through the tight naval cordon. Such trading, of course, was illegal and subject to prosecution by Federal authorities.
In the Fall of that year, Union naval vessels had intercepted a Confederate blockade runner, the Ceres. A bundle of letters captured on shipboard, relating to the blockade-running trade, was seized and forwarded to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles for publication. These were read to the cabinet by William Faxon, Welles's chief clerk at a meeting on 21 December 1863. Welles records in his diary that "Faxon proceeded to read them. Those from Trowbridge [N.C. Trowbridge, a New York merchant] to young Lamar [Col. Charles A. L. Lamar, former Confederate agent in England] made some singular disclosures, and one of them made mention of a nephew of William H. Seward as being concerned [having a financial share] in a cargo for running the blockade. This disturbed Seward, more than I should have supposed,--for it was not asserted as a fact,--and if, as he remarked, there were among twenty or thirty nephews there were one traitor it would not be strange. It was thought best to stop the publication. I proposed that a portion...should be made public...But I was overruled by the others, and Faxon was sent off to stop the publication. He was too late, however, for a portion of them had already been printed" (quoted in Basler).
Here, Lincoln, in deference to the very obvious distress of Seward, privately tells Welles to delay full publication of the intercepted letters long enough to allow Seward to ascertain the truth of his nephew's apparent entanglement with rebel blockade-running: "I fear that the publication of a part of the intercepted correspondence, just now, may do harm; and I have to request of you, that so far as in your power, you will surprise any further publication of any part of it, either here, at New-York or elsewhere, for a few days."
Sadly, we do not know which New York paper was to have printed the compromising correspondence (publication in his home state, of course, would have heightened the embarrassment for Seward), and the final outcome is not known. There is no further reference to it in Lincoln's papers. Details of the intriguing affair could probably be found in the extensive National Archives papers relating to the blockade (see http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/fall_1999_blockade_runner s_2.html)
Published in Basler 3:87-88.